As much joy as internet memes have given you over the years, you may have struggled to explain them to those unfamiliar with the concept. But if you’ve found it a tall order to articulate the power of found images crudely overlaid with text to, say, your parents, imagine attempting to do the same to an ancestor from the fourteenth century. Introducing memes to a medieval person, the best strategy would presumably be to begin not with sardonic Willy Wonka, the guy distracted by another girl, or The Most Interesting Man in the World, but memes with familiar medieval imagery. Thanks to KB, the national library of the Netherlands, you can now make some of you own with ease.
“On www.medievalmemes.org visitors can use images taken from the Dutch national library’s medieval collection and turn them into memes,” says Medievalists.net. “When using the meme generator, people actively create new contexts for these historic images by adding current captions. The available images are accompanied by explanatory videos, providing viewers with background information and showing them that, much like today, people in the Middle Ages used images to comment on their surroundings and current affairs.” You might repurpose these lively pieces of medieval art for such twenty-first-century topics as clubbing, online shopping, or the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the top of this post appears an image from 1327, originally created for a book of miracles King Charles IV ordered for his queen. As KB explains, it offers “a warning of what can happen if you don’t learn your prayers properly.” Below that is “a sort of Mediaeval cartoon” from 1183 about the techniques involved in properly slaughtering a pig. And just above, we see what happened when “the Kenite Jael lured the leader of the army, Sisera, into her tent. Sisera had been violently oppressing the Kenites for 20 years. While he slept, she whacked a tent peg straight through his head.” Though created for a picture Bible 592 years ago, this picture surely has potential for transposition into commentary on the very different perils of life in the twenty-twenties. But when you deploy it as a meme, you can do so in the knowledge that even your medieval forebears would have known that feel.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.